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Britain’s Gibraltar turns back protesting Spanish fishermen

Gibraltar has turned back Spanish fishermen protesting an artificial reef. A diplomatic row erupted over the artificial reef, which comprises 70 concrete blocks and, according to Gibraltar, protects biodiversity.

The Royal Gibraltar Police announced that it had "corralled" about 40 fishing boats after they crossed from Spanish waters on Sunday. The boats spent about two hours in the waters of Gibraltar - a self-governing British territory and home to about 30,000 people - before police pushed them out. The protest ended peacefully and without arrests. Spanish and Gibraltar police vessels monitored the protest and prevented the fishing boats from getting near the reef.

About 500 people watched the one-hour protest from the shores of Gibraltar, many waving flags declaring their loyalty to the territory and Britain. On the other side of the border, spectators gathered in the port of La Linea de la Concepcion, some waving la Rojigualda - Spain's national flag - and wearing T-shirts that read "Gibraltar Is Spanish."

The construction of the reef has soured relations between Spain and England. According to Gibraltar's government, led by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, the reef protects fish stocks from being overexploited and will regenerate marine life. Gibraltar's government also alleged that Spaniards who had raked there for shellfish had done so illegally.

Tense words

According to Spain, the reef damages the environment and disrupts fishing. The country retaliated over the construction of the reef by imposing extra vehicle checks at its border with Gibraltar, causing long traffic delays.

Picardo has refused to back down, saying that "hell will freeze over" before Gibraltar removes the reef in compliance with Spain's demands and has accused his neighbors of behaving like North Korea.

Britain has threatened to take the border controls issue to European courts. On Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue of Spain's additional checks in a phone call with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, calling them "politically motivated and disproportionate."

Barroso told Cameron that the Commission had paid close attention to the situation and would do everything it could to "ensure respect of EU law." He also called on Britain and Spain to address the matter "in a way that is in line with their common membership in the EU."

Troubled past

Spain has long claimed sovereignty over Gibraltar, an outcrop of 6.8 square kilometers (2.65 square miles) on its southernmost tip ceded to Britain in 1713. The latest dispute has led to a spike in tensions, with Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, saying he will take all legal measures to defend his country's interests.

Those include checks on cars entering and leaving Gibraltar. Rajoy has defended the border controls, saying they help combat the contraband of drugs and tobacco, and calling the checks in line with security policies employed by member countries of the Schengen zone to which Britain and Gibraltar do not belong. Spain has also floated the idea of charging people entering and leaving Gibraltar 50 euros ($66) to provide compensation for the losses that the fishermen face.

For their part, Spanish fishermen went so far as to warn Friday that they would consider the possibility of unilaterally removing the concrete blocks.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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